He Must Be A Friend: Harassment On The Streets

الأربعاء 27 تشرين الأول 2010

Written by Jackie Sawiris

I am guilty. I admit it. I am guilty of doing something I encourage others not to do. I am guilty of remaining silent. Until today.

It was a beautiful Wednesday that demanded to be walked in. Sun rays still strong with summer but cooled by impending autumnal breezes. I want to walk as far as I can before night brings too much chill for my temperature-sensitive temperament. So I finish work and set out from the 2nd circle to Abdoun for my 7pm yoga class. I am late in starting but never mind, I can always jump in a cab if it gets too late.

Up to the third circle I go, mindfully crossing streets still heavy with traffic. I hang a left at the third circle, heading towards Ras al Ain. Second right to cut behind … behind … behind me … behind me must be a friend playing a joke. Behind me must be someone I haven’t seen in a long time who wants to surprise me. Behind me “must be a friend must be a friend” is the mantra that runs through my head as the guy who is most obviously NOT a friend wraps his right arm around my neck, catches my mouth in the motion and pulls me towards him … pulls screams from my throat as he pulls my body towards the ground and slams his left hand into my ass and grabs it … grabs ME … squeezes so tight and pulls pulls pulls as if he wants to separate bits of myself from me.

MUST BE A FRIEND tries to cover my screams with his arm but fails. MUST BE A FRIEND makes sure he hurts me before he drops me to the ground and runs away … runs away right in front of me. He seems so young. Only seems so because I cannot see his face. He has that awkwardness of youth. And that arrogance. He pauses to show me his back. To taunt me.

It works. I lunge up towards the dark-pants-sky-blue-shirt-wearing lumbering oaf with short dark hair and light skin who carries a bag or something in his hand. As I run towards the stairs down which he disappears, I wonder how he could possibly have grabbed me while holding something. This nonsensical wonder obsessively repeats itself in my mind until I refocus on holding him with my eyes if not my hands. He runs. I run. I run to catch up to him. Run to catch him. Run to do I don’t know what to him. My thoughts haven’t strayed that far. I am in the here and now. Present. Focused. To catch him. But I lose sight of him instead.

A man who saw what he did to me asks me if he did anything to me. I turn on him, venom rather than words spew from my mouth.

Of Course He Did! Are You Blind? Does He Have To Make Me Bleed or Something Worse Before it Can Be Classified As Him Doing Something To Me?

I call my friend. A real friend. He arrives in less than 5 minutes. We drive around, asking people if they have seen MUST BE A FRIEND. No one. No one saw anyone. Anything. I don’t know what to do so I go to yoga. I breathe and stretch and keep my tears at bay until I get home.

Until the What-Ifs come.

What if he wanted … what if he tried … what if he had … what if what if is the obsession in my head that bursts the dam. The tears come – and the perfectly formed thought with it: What if he wanted to stick a knife into my skin – or something far worse into my body – but my screams drove him away.

I am a writer, a filmmaker, an actor. It is my job to communicate. But I am left expressionless until later that same night, when I manage to form the 420 characters-with-spaces Facebook allows me to enter as my status.

I am a Libyan-born, half Jordanian, half Egyptian, American-raised woman. I am passionate by birth, proactive by design.  But I am left as flaccid as the laws that that are more pretence than protection of women in this country.

I am a human being who habitually ignores my family’s pleas to please just “shhhh” about all the injustices in the world that bother me, hurt me, make me angry. I’ve never known how to keep quiet until now. I never want to know this again.

I am a concerned citizen working on a project to fight harassment who, after more than two years, stepped back to take a break from the incessant cultural bureaucracy that obstructs the development of something that seems so reasonable. The irony does not escape me.

Nor does the irony of keeping quiet when I’ve spent these more-than-two-years asking, encouraging, begging women to speak up speak out speak now about harassment. It is the first and most important step in recognising, addressing, and fixing what is most definitely broke. Without knowledge, no society can do anything towards correcting a problem. And a society, ultimately, is the sum of its people.

So the question must be asked. I must ask the question. Do we, as a society, as this society, really and truly care about protecting women? If we do, we are bad at manifesting it. If we don’t, shame on us. Every citizen, resident, short-term traveller is complicit in every crime we tolerate, ignore, deny exists … just as every government is complicit in every crime it does not punish.

I have since reported my assault to an authority, thanks to the encouragement and support of my friends. Why didn’t I the same night it happened? Why was going to yoga literally the only thing I could think of doing 15 minutes after it happened? Because I didn’t believe then – just as I don’t believe now – that there is a cohesive body of caring, proactive protectors in this country. And I find it incomprehensible that the efforts of the few individuals who do care and take action are allowed to be diluted down to nothing by those that would rather condemn the victim than find and punish the perpetrator.

And even so, a few proactive individuals, though better than none, are not enough to change the fact that most women in Jordan and in the region would rather remain silent about harassment rather than risk being blamed for inciting it, feeling shamed into believing they could have prevented it, or sacrificing their freedom of movement. It sounds as obscene to me now as it did to me in May 2008 when I began what has become objecDEFY Harassment. The problem with not having anyone to count on to protect us, other than the obvious, is that the behaviour it perpetuates is destructive; being quiet or being reactive does none of us any good.

Either way – all of us are in danger. Women for obvious reasons that lead to our exclusion from holistically participating in our society. Men because they nurture destructive behaviour, and then must intimately interact with women who are scared and angry. Society as a whole because no society can evolve in positive ways without the participation of all of its members.

We need reliable, enforceable and – most importantly – enforced laws that act as deterrents and punishment for harassment and assault that transcend cultural mores and protect women rather than victimize them. At the very least, our reactions should not be deemed more heinous  than the crimes committed against us.

My ass is still sore, but I’m happy to be moving it towards a healthier way of being in the world. A world that can only become safer if we make it so. All we all need to do is to take a first step. Together. We’re right here: www.objecdefy.com.

[Editor’s note: A slightly different version of this story first appeared on www.sawtalniswa.com. Final paragraph was edited slightly to include the author’s project website.]

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